Kalasha women enjoy far more freedom and agency than anywhere else in Pakistan | Photos by Rabia Bugti

The last of the Kalasha

They once ruled the entire region but today, the number of indigenous people of the Kalash Valley is fast dwindling.
Published February 24, 2019

Amidst the music of flute and drums, the Kalasha people danced till the sun rose above the Hindu Kush mountains. The occasion was the Uchaw festival but, unlike ordinary celebrations, this was being held under the shadow of Kalashnikov-toting guards. Even amidst the joy of festivities, fear among the Kalasha is almost palpable.

There are at least 600 Kalasha people at the festival. Another 30 to 40 people are foreigners — most of whom are from Greece — while local tourists number about 300. The air is almost one of defiance but equally one that is filled with love. Men and women dance, sing and choose lovers. If a woman finds a new man during the festival, she can say farewell to her husband and begin a new life without any eyebrows being raised.

Unlike other places in Pakistan, there is no concept of arranged marriages in the valley. The festival provides the ideal opportunity for girls and boys to wine and dine and find their ideal match.

Such openness, while completely normal among the Kalasha, can provoke the wrath of extremist religious groups. And it has in the past — three years ago, in 2016, suspected Taliban operatives from the adjoining Afghan province of Nuristan are believed to have slaughtered two Kalasha shepherds who were herding around 300 of their sheep near Nuristan. Back on February 2, 2014, the Taliban also released a 50-minute-long video and called for an ‘armed struggle’ against the Kalasha; they exhorted Sunni Muslims to support the ‘movement.’ And in 2011, 35 soldiers and police were killed in a night-time ambush in nearby Arandu.

But the Kalasha are still alive and still celebrating life.

They once ruled the entire region but today, the number of indigenous people of the Kalash Valley is fast dwindling. Not only is this a story of struggling to survive but it is also a tale of an indigenous culture meandering towards extinction

The first elected Kalasha member of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly, Wazir Zada, is also at the festival. There are about 400 men posted on security detail for about a thousand people. As Wazir Zada makes his way to the crowd to join a dance, a security guard follows his every footstep. And as he begins dancing, his guard realizes that he will soon lose Wazir Zada. He disappears into the crowd as well.

Wazir Zada, a man in his mid-30s, is actually the one who had lobbied for the Kalasha to be recognised as an ethnic and religious minority. It was because of him that the 2018 census counted the Kalasha as a separate people with their own identity. But the overwhelming number of security guards is not there to protect him; instead, it is the foreign guests that need protection.

“I am here to guard foreign nationals,” says a guard from the Anti-Terrorism Squad. In stark contrast to the mood of the celebrations, this man has a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. His gaze is eagle-eyed, looking for any sign of any potential untoward incident.

“The Kalasha are said to be descendants of Alexander the Great. There have been attacks on the Kalasha and foreign nationals in the valley before. Since the Kalash valley borders Afghanistan, sometimes the Taliban carry out attacks here.”

Despite the euphoria of the festival, the reality is that slowly the noise of guns being fired has become normalised for the Kalasha. Nobody bats an eyelid at the presence of gun-slinging men posted to guard the festival. Life carries on despite a perpetual state of fear enveloping the Kalash valley.

Festive cache

The Kalasha are an ancient community that has historically been closed to outsiders and who are very guarded about their customs. Living in harmony with nature in three separated valleys of the Hindu Kush mountains, the ancient tribe has long protected its cultural mores and customs from the ‘outside.’

Sharing borders with Afghanistan, the Kalasha live in three Kalasha valleys—Bamburate, Birir and Rumbur. The majority of them dwell in Bamburate. The Kalasha are shepherds, farmers and a few of them own local businesses. Even fewer of the estimated 3,800 Kalasha have government jobs. They are dependent on their livestock and farming — something that explains their festive seasons.

There are three festive seasons a year in Kalash valley: Camos, Joshi, and Uchaw.

Chamos is the biggest festival, observed in December to celebrate the end of the year. The Kalasha sing and dance around a fire and sacrifice goats to welcome their god, Balaumain, who is believed to visit them during the festival.

“During the last festival, two earthquakes happened,” says young Schamim in an incredulous tone. “I guess the first happened when Balaumain came and the other when he left the valley.”

The Joshi festival marks the beginning of spring. It takes place every year in May for a week. Customs dictate that everyone wears new clothes while women are to bejewel themselves heavily. They go to the hillside to sing and dance. They also decorate their houses.

The valley celebrates Uchaw or Uchal festival before the harvest season. And this festival, like the others, is marked by dancing and singing, paying homage to Mother Nature for blessing them with barley and wheat.

Uchaw used to carry on from July 1 till August 22 each year. But things have changed due to security reasons. Now only two days, 21 and 22 August, are earmarked for the Uchaw festival.

But even for this brief period, security of guests arriving is paramount. Shahzada Jan, a Kalasha and owner of a guest house, says that due to deteriorating security circumstances, “every foreign national is given at least one guard when they visit the valley.”

The curse of violence

The majesty of the Kalash Valley
The majesty of the Kalash Valley

A bumpy, dilapidated and non-existent road leads to the green pastures of Kalash. In the farms women and men are seen working together. The Kalasha don’t differentiate between men and women in terms of societal roles. Both are equal and strong for them. Both can drink wine and work equally. This environment rarely can be seen in other parts of the country.

Bahbi, a 50-year-old Kalasha woman, sits under a shadow of a tree in a farm, in Bamburate valley, and is busy making some local handicrafts. She spends some hours working in the farm but, after resting for a while, she is making a kopesi, a Kalasha traditional colourful long cap.

“There is very little profit in the handicraft business now,” says Bahbi, “because it’s not like the past. We used to earn more when tourists could come to the valley without much restriction.”

The spate of violence witnessed by the Kalasha since 2011 has slowly shrunk the local economy.

The Kalasha community lives in constant fear. They rarely talk about religious issues with outsiders, particularly about conversions.

“The number of foreign tourists was much higher before than it is today,” added Bahbi. “They could move freely and bought more stuff from us. The situation is quite different now. The decrease in tourism has brought about a decline in our earnings.”

Due to the deteriorating security situation, foreign tourists have confined themselves to visiting the town only. The provision of a security guard for each tourist doesn’t help create a perception of security.

“Foreign tourists have to pay for the guard’s hoteling, meals and everything,” says Shahzadajan, a local guesthouse owner. “Not all tourists can afford that. This is definitely affecting our business. I request the prime minister to focus on tourism in Kalash valley and ease the restrictions here.”

In 2010, an American man named Gary Brooks Faulkner, who presented himself as a construction work professional, was arrested by local police in the Kalash valleys while attempting to cross the border with Afghanistan. He was carrying a pistol, a sword and night-vision goggles. Some newspapers reported that Faulkner had confessed to being on a mission to kill Osama Bin Laden. But these accusations never made their way to popular imagination in the country.

That said, this incident portrayed foreign tourists as spies and they were now seen by law enforcement agencies with great suspicion. Moreover, the valleys are slowly also becoming a no-go land for journalists and there is a restriction on reporting about the Kalash valleys. This is a no-win situation because those that can plead the case of tourism in Kalash have been asked to stay away.

Justice (Retd) Ali Nawaz Chowhan, chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), echoes the thought: “The moment you are there, somebody is after you. A hawaldar [almost always] comes and pesters you. Even I was affected by this pestering even though we had taken permission in writing. But the real question is why should we take a written permission to visiting our own areas and country?”

The conversion conundrum

Women artisans are a frequent sight
Women artisans are a frequent sight

On June 16, 2016, 15-year-old Rina was convinced by one of her teachers that she could be a good human by becoming Muslim.

“Rina was consistently crying and saying she was not a Muslim,” says Rina’s cousin. “She didn’t want to leave her Kalasha people. She was shouting, ‘Please save me!’”

She brought 15-year-old Rina to her home. As soon she tried to give shelter to Rina, a mob, all of them Muslims, gathered in front of her house started pelting stones.

“I pleaded to the police, who were present on the scene, and the station house officer,” she told me, “but they did not protect my cousin. I clearly told them they can’t force this minor to convert and leave her religion and culture.”

The mob dispersed when army soldiers fired shots from a nearby post. But a group of clerics came and took Rina with them. She was made to recite the kalma [declaration of faith] and was declared a Muslim. Rina was married off soon after the incident, and she left her home and now lives with her Muslim husband and a child in Peshawar.

But this incident left its scars on Rina’s cousin who went through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She still visits a psychologist and psychiatrist. Meanwhile, some steps away from her house where she was attacked, a beautiful mosque is under construction.

This is one of the many stories of Kalasha who are forcefully or systematically converted.

A team led by the chairman of the NCHR visited Bamburate last year to document the threats and challenges that the Kalasha are facing.

“I ascertained the difficulties they are facing with respect to freedom of religion and human rights,” Justice Chowhan had said to me back then. “There are only a small number of people left as a distinct community. I am afraid they will gradually disappear or melt away in the general society. We will be deprived of an extraordinary community which has been living here since Alexander the Great made it to these valleys, with their distinct features, culture and traditions.”

The NCHR published a detailed report after the visit of its team to Bamburate titled, “Saga of Survival: The Protection, Preservation and Promotion of Constitutional Rights of Indigenous Kalasha People.” The committee noted with great concern that Kalasha schoolchildren are not taught about their religion, rituals and culture. Instead, they are only taught Islamic Studies.

Indeed, this matter has larger ramifications.

“Around 80 percent Kalasha leave their religion and culture to become Muslims when they are minors,” says Kalasha activist and writer Arasto, “and so conversion starts from schools.”

Kalasha tribes have been fighting for their forests and land-related cases in various courts of Pakistan. “Our lands and villages are under occupation of the royal family of Chitral,” claims local activist Imran Kabir.

To reverse the process and to preserve Kalasha culture, Athanassios Lerounis, the director of a Greek programme to preserve the Kalasha, set up a system to educate school children about their culture. In fact, Lerounis is known as a Greek messiah in the valley. From Kalasha culture to economy to religion, he enlightened the community about themselves and their history. He also established the Kalasha Dur — a museum, small hospital, library, hostel and school complex for the Kalasha (which Muslims cannot attend), housed within a palace built by the NGO Greek Volunteers, with help from Greece’s government body, Hellenic Aid.

Lerounis introduced the elderly of the town to his school and asked them to lecture the young ones about the Kalasha culture, history and religion. He would pay the elders a salary as well and some volunteered for the cause. He helped Kalasha people to put their language into a written form for the first time. They now use the English alphabet for this purpose.

But the beautiful and developmental era of the community soon came to an abrupt end when Lerounis was mysteriously abducted by the Taliban in 2009. He was in the museum when he was picked up. He was released after eight months. It is said that his home country paid up to one million pounds to secure his safe release from the Taliban.

After being recovered, he came once to meet the Kalasha. But when he went back, he never returned. The Kalasha still share stories of this messiah to every newcomer to the valley.

“When Lerounis left the valley, the Government Kalasha Primary School was left at the mercy of the education department,” adds Arasto. “The Kalasha who were paid by Lerounis and his NGO were not given permanent status by the education department. So now Kalasha students are taught by non-Kalasha teachers in these schools. They are taught how to become Muslims.”

The Kalasha Dur’s first-aid centre treats Muslims and Greek Volunteers have also built Muslim schools and secured a clean-water supply that is used by everyone. Yet there still is suspicion among Muslims that Athanassios Lerounis worked for the Kalasha and largely ignored them.

“We are the true rulers and residents of this region,” says Sher Ahmed Khan, Qazi at the Bambureet, “If anyone does not believe in it then they should consult history.”

The annals of history note that when Islam reached this part of the world, it could not reach these valleys due to the hard terrain and lack of accessibility. Many historians argue that preachers and even invaders rarely ever made it to these valleys. And yet, in all the Kalash valleys, Muslims now outnumber the Kalasha. However, it’s not only external factors that are pushing the Kalasha culture to the brink of extinction but the Kalasha youth itself is distancing itself from its ancient culture.

Elders in the Kalash valleys say that the youth is devoid of information and knowledge about their own culture. As modernism and communications are knocking at the door of the valley, the youth are stepping away from their ancestral traditions, customs and beliefs.

But perhaps this phenomenon of conversions is a potpourri of various factors.

Rehmat Shakeel’s father was one of the many Kalasha who went to Nuristan to make end meets for his family. When he returned home after some months, he had a long beard and he had abandoned his Kalasha community. He informed the family that he was now a Muslim and asked his minor daughter and sons to become Muslims too. Barring one, the others obeyed their father’s order.

“I found no solace in Kalasha religion or culture,” says Shakeel’s father, “since there is no concept of the Hereafter in the Kalasha. I would rather say there is no Kalasha religion; just dance, wine, enjoyment, some festivals. But now I will have a blessed Hereafter.”

Meanwhile, Shakeel is in a dilemma because he can’t leave his family nor Kalasha traditions and culture.

“My father and other converts always advise me and other Kalasha that we will only have a successful life in the Hereafter if we become Muslims,” says Shakeel. “But what is happening to us is being done by some Muslims. No powerful Muslim talks about our economic, political, social and religious rights. The Taliban attacked us many times, took away our sheep and goats, slaughtered our people too. Is it not our Muslim brothers’ duty to talk against the injustice inflicted on us?”

The Kalasha community lives in constant fear. They rarely talk about religious issues with outsiders, particularly about conversions.

“The conversion issue should be dealt with by the government,” argues Arasto. “There should be a proper mechanism or legislation prohibiting conversion of a minor. For instance, everyone should be presented before the court of law if someone is converting. Definitely, there should be a law.”

But Wazir Zada rebuts all claims of forced conversions and says categorically that “that there is no forced conversion.” In an earlier interview, he had claimed: “If anyone wants to embrace Islam, we can’t chain them. And if one person is becoming Muslim, then four more Kalasha births are also happening.”

Social activist Luke Rehmat disagrees with the claim. He says that Census 2018 states that their population is 3,800 — a decline from independent earlier estimates of 4,200.

The political orphans

Elders such as this woman have seen their younger generations take little interest in their culture and customs
Elders such as this woman have seen their younger generations take little interest in their culture and customs

Before Wazir Zada, the Kalasha community never had any representation in either the lower house or the upper house.

“All is well in the valleys,” he says.

But locals are loathe to toe this line. It has been more than four decades that Kalasha tribes have been fighting for their forests and land-related cases in various courts of Pakistan.

“Our lands and villages are under occupation of the royal family of Chitral,” claims local activist Imran Kabir.

The villages being referred to are Batreeg, Aneesh, Bron, Krakaal and Dars Gurohare, where the various Kalasha tribes and the royal family of Chitral are confronting each other for forests and other lands. The forest mafia is also very active in the valleys, which has meant there are whispers and suspicions about who is working in collusion with the mafia.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Pakistan gave its verdict to divide the lands of these five villages between the two parties. The royal family was to get two thirds of the land and about a hundred Kalasha families were to get the rest. Some of the land is cultivatable and some has forests.

“Despite the verdict of the apex court of Pakistan, the royal family has not accepted it,” says Kabir. “The case has taken too much time. Now, out of 100 families, 40 families have become Muslim [because conversion might help their legal cases]. The royal family is selling the lands and forests [to outsiders] as well.”

Some local activists say that the government should put a ban on selling lands to people of other provinces and stop the timber mafia as it is pushing the community to the brink.

“There is also an issue of silver oak tree in the valleys which were a source of domestic use and great earnings as well,” says Kabir. “Our people rely on farming, goats, sheep and forests but the powerful people are snatching our lands and forests and there is no one to fight for us and our rights. We are political orphans.”

In turn, economic vulnerability of the community has set in. Locals rarely land government jobs, for example.

“When the Taliban killed our shepherds and stole our animals, we were promised two jobs in frontier scouts,” says a local while requesting anonymity, “but we never got even those jobs.” The insinuation is that a severe sense of deprivation exists in the community.

The Kalasha claim to be facing discrimination at every step. Even tourists prefer hotels and guest houses owned by Muslims. “Our car driver told us that you must not stay at any Kalasha guest house,” says a tourist, “he even told us not to eat anything cooked by the Kalash.”

But tourism brings its own pressures and problems, often relating to how visitors tend to ignore Kalasha customs.

Young Roomi, for example, could not join the Uchaw festival this time. She had to stay with few of the Kalasha girls in the Bashali House while everyone else was dancing.

“I want to celebrate, dance and join my family members and friends in the festival but I am not allowed to do so,” says 24 year-old Roomi.

Locals say that it’s part of ancient Kalasha culture to restrict certain womens’ movements and confine them to houses on some specific days. Bashali House is a place reserved for girls undergoing menstrual periods. The Kalasha culture focuses on “purity”. According to their beliefs, during these specific days, women are impure so they have to live in the house. If they don’t, God might punish them by sending floods and other natural calamities.

But pregnant women also have to stay in the house for their deliveries. The traditional and very ancient house has some very basic facilities. The place is restricted to men and boys and they are not even allowed to touch the wall of the house.

“Touching Bashali House’s wall is prohibited,” reads a written sign on the wall. But visitors coming from the other parts of Pakistan often touch it and take selfies in some show of bravado. I run into a Kalasha man right after he scuffled with some visitors. The Kalasha man had to repeat it a number of times to the visitors that touching this sacred wall is prohibited. Despite this, the visitors took another selfie and left the scene.

There was a time when the Kalasha used to leave precious ornaments of dead women on them after they died. And they used to place weapons and swords with the men when they left the world. They never buried their dead; they would place them in a box and leave them in a graveyard. But they started burying them when neighbours started stealing ornaments and swords from the boxes. Now they bury the dead bodies and leave a charpoy at the grave.

Even young women are duped by Muslim men in the name of a bright future and convinced to desert their culture. “There are some girls who have changed their religion and got married just to have a better life,” adds Justice Chowhan.

The ways of the Kalasha

The indigenous culture has been declared the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). It was accepted by the Unesco’s Inter-governmental Committee for Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage during its 13th session in Port Louis, Mauritius.

In particular, it is the Suri Jagek practice of the Kalasha people which was approved by the Unesco for inclusion in this year’s list of ICH. Suri Jagek is all about observing the sun. This is a Kalasha meteorological and astronomical practice carried out in December on the winter solstice and is based on the observation of the sun, moon and stars in reference to the local topography.

Due to increased construction in the valley, however, it has become difficult for the community to observe Suri Jagek as it used to. Many customs and cultural values of the Kalasha are under threat, claim local activists, going as far as to argue that their “entire culture is on the verge of extinction.”

From its festivals, to the Bashali house and from language to Suri Jagek, from the Kalasha wine to its traditional colourful dresses and from their graveyards to the traditional dance, the community is unique.

Most human beings mourn the death of their loved ones. But the Kalasha celebrate death. They dance and celebrate during funerals rites. As the Kalasha famously say, someone comes into this world by the will of God and eventually returns to God, then there is no point of crying and mourning. The death of the Kalasha way of life would, however, be nothing short of a national tragedy.

The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @ShahmeerAlbalos

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 24th, 2019